By Michele Hanisee
Proving once again that they care more about the welfare of criminals than victims and the public, the state Legislature continues to assail us with legislation to prevent criminals from being held fully accountable.
Two cases in point: Senate Bill 1279 and Senate Bill 1437.
SB 1279 would cap the maximum sentence for criminals who commit multiple crimes against multiple victims at what is effectively the punishment for only two or three of their crimes. What this proposed law does is prevent a judge from imposing a sentence that is more than twice the sentence for just one of charges, even when there are multiple charges and allegations of additional harm. For example, rape by use of drugs has a maximum punishment of eight years. Under this proposed law, a criminal who drug-raped 15 women could not be sentenced to more than 16 years, even if he also used a gun or caused great bodily injury. Likewise, robbery crews who typically commit dozens of armed robberies before they get caught, would be facing a maximum of ten years (which is double the maximum for one count) no matter how many people they robbed at gunpoint.
Criminals already get a multi-crime discount in more ways than one. Under current law a judge can generally only impose the maximum sentence on one count. All additional crimes automatically get sentenced at one-third of the middle-term, if they are imposed at all. The judge can also choose to run sentences “concurrent” which means that multiple sentences overlap, rather than running end-to-end. On top of that, criminals only serve about half the time they are sentenced to because they automatically get “good conduct credits” (even if they misbehave). On top of all that, Proposition 57 reduces the sentence further by making them eligible for early release after serving only a fraction of the sentence imposed by the judge.
Under this proposed law, crimes against additional victims would go unpunished. Enhancements for firearm use, great bodily injury and hate crimes would go unpunished.
So, a criminal who bilks multiple elderly couples out of their life savings or defrauds a family business of millions of dollars would receive a lesser sentence that someone convicted of nabbing a few dollars in a liquor store robbery. A predator who molested dozens of teens would be sentenced to six years in prison and serve around half that time.
SB 1437 would greatly reduce murder liability for people who aid, abet or knowingly participate in violent felonies in which victims are killed, including rapes, carjackings, robberies and residential burglaries. Someone who willingly takes part in the crime, but doesn’t actually commit the killing, could only be guilty of the underlying felony, such as burglary, unless there was proof that they acted as a “major participant,” and with “reckless indifference to human life.”
In situations where multiple people commit a violent crime it may be impossible to prove which of them actually killed an innocent victim or was a “major participant,” in which case nobody could be held responsible for the death. If three armed burglars break into a residence together and the homeowner is killed by a single bullet, how is a prosecutor to prove who fired the gun, or who was a major, as opposed to minor participant, when the only witness is dead? Absent such proof, all three perpetrators are guilty of no more than the burglary or robbery, even though they all chose to undertake such a dangerous and violent crime. Felons who knowingly participate in a violent crime in which an innocent victim is killed can receive the same sentence as those who commit the same felony but no one is killed.
Furthermore, SB 1437 is retroactive, meaning countless offenders rightfully convicted of murder can petition to have their convictions overturned. Defendants who pled guilty to avoid harsher sentences will now exceed the benefit of that bargain. Prosecutors will have to attempt to resurrect case files and locate witnesses to meet this new standard of proof on old cases.
The state Legislature has rushed to embrace any soft-on-crime bill, no matter how ludicrous the provisions. That’s why it’s so important for all of us to lobby our state representatives and urge them to vote “NO” on these dangerous bills.
Call and email their district offices. Write letters to the editor. Post on social media – tagging your #representative and #NOSB1437 and #NOSB1279. Urge your family and friends to do likewise – and make sure they include the hashtag.
Here are the Twitter handles for nearly all your State Senators:
We who work to protect victims continue to lament the unraveling of public safety, especially since we get a front-row view of the tragedy, chaos and grief that flows in its fetid wake. But we must do more than lament – we must fight and make our voices heard. Talk is cheap, readers. Call your legislators. Email your legislators. Tweet at your legislators. You get the government you demand.
Michele Hanisee is President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.